“What a Sight”: A Postcard of a Chinese Family, Los Angeles, ca. 1905

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is striking how a look back at history provides so many moments of surprising twists and turns and today’s entry is one of those.  The Chinese community of Los Angeles were generally reviled and viewed with great suspicion and, sometimes, blatant racial hatred for several decades in the last half of the 19th century, with the most horrific example being the massacre of 19 Chinese males during a riot in October 1871.

Through the first few decades of the 20th century, however, the view shifted somewhat to one of, apparently, grudging toleration, but more notably, one in which the Chinese were looked at by locals, many of them late arrivals to the area, as well as tourists as objects of exotic fascination.  To a strange degree, they and the community, the Chinatown of Los Angeles where Union Station now stands, in which they lived, were tourist attractions.

This is largely reflected in a profusion of postcards issued in the early 1900s that often reflected this image of the Chinese.  The Homestead has a sampling of some of these, mostly dated to the first decade of the century and which show Chinese residents and sections of Chinatown, but also has a remarkable brochure from the time promoting “H.C. Noll’s Official Trip To Chinatown” (that will be the subject of a future post!)

Today’s highlighted artifact is a postcard with a hand colored photographic image titled “A Chinese Family.”  It shows five persons, including an older man, a young woman and three children, including an infant held in the left arm of the man, standing on or next to a stoop of a wood-frame structure, almost certainly in the Chinatown area.

Godfrey Santa Monica reverse_20180801_0015
A hand-colored photographic postcard labeled “A Chinese Family” published by Michael Rieder, about 1905.  The inscription (the recipient lived in Michigan) reads “I Wish you could have gone over in Chinatown with us, what a sight.”

The bright colors added to the photograph are from the native clothing and headgear of the children, with the elderly man’s apparel being black and brown.  Vivid yellows, purples, reds and greens are a marked contrast to not just the older man’s clothes but to the drabness of the structure behind the group.  They clearly highlight the otherness of the clothing compared to what Americans wore and were used to seeing.

There isn’t much of an inscription, only a few words at the bottom of the front, just below the image, reading:

I wish you could have gone over in Chinatown with us, what a sight.

Presumably those last few words were an expression of at least some of a common set of feelings among Anglo visitors to Los Angeles’ Chinatown that could have included wonderment, bemusement (or amusement), fascination, and, in some cases, repulsion and disgust.

The “otherness” found in societies throughout the world really usually centers around difference—in physical appearance; dress; design and/or ornamentation of houses and businesses; food; music; religion; cultural practices and traditions; and other aspects.  Isolation from the majority, legal prohibitions, protests, and violence can constitute some of the strongest reactions to the “other”, especially in the early stages of the presence of these “outsiders.”  Over time, though, these can morph into more subtle and covert actions and reactions.

This postcard and the many other examples that were issued, just to take this one instance, obviously were created, published and sold to fill a want for prospective and actual buyers for something that reflected the exotic and otherworldly nature of Los Angeles’ Chinese residents.  The days of outright violence against them were largely long gone, so more “benign” ways of marking them as different, such as this card, are examples of the change in attitude, though still reflective of a broadly institutionalized form of racism.

One other notable contextual element to this is that the 1882 prohibition against further emigration of the Chinese, the earliest of whom came to California during the Gold Rush and the first substantial number coming to Los Angeles by 1870, was a contributing factor to the general change in attitude.  Yet, at the time this postcard was mailed (the postmark was on this day in 1905, though the card may have been published at least a few years earlier), there was another “other” that was being targeted as a threat to the Anglo-dominated society of California.

Po and Wing in China-town ca 1905
Another Rieder published postcard, titled “Po and Wing in China-Town” from about the same time as the above card.

These were the Japanese, who, often because of the restriction of the Chinese and the subsequent labor isues that resuted, began migrating to the United States, mainly on the west coast, in significant numbers by 1900.  Hysterical cries to ban the Japanese were raised in the press, among politicians and in other quarters.  Japan’s stunning victory in a war with Russia just about the time this postcard was sent, even though it reflected an astounding transformation from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and a tremendous push of Westernization, concerned many Americans.

The Temple family also had a lamentable connection to the anti-Japanese movement, as Walter P. Temple’s older brother, William, who returned to Los Angeles by 1910 after years spent in Mexico, wrote a pointed published essay calling for the banning of the Japanese.  Ironically, when Walter Temple bought the Workman Homestead in November 1917, the 75-acre ranch was under lease to a Japanese tenant farmer named Yatsuda (the Japanese were legally forbidden to own land through the California Alien Land Law of 1913).

As is often the case in American history, a group or groups of others (blacks, Irish, eastern and southern Europeans, the Chinese, Mexicans, the Japanese, and, more recently, Latinos and Muslims) are labeled as “others” and treated as such in a number of overt and covert ways.

Young boy LA Chinatown PC
Another Rieder postcard taken at the same location of a young boy.

While many of these groups might find grudging tolerance or (with the Irish and other Europeans) greater forms of acceptance over time, there has generally always been at least one group of “others” that are highlighted as a threat to the nation.  By the early 1900s, the Chinese were seen as less of a threat than the Japanese, though this hardly amounted to anything close to widespread acceptance, so much as grudging tolerance.

The publisher of the postcard was Michael Rieder, who was the child of immigrants from Baden just prior to the unification of Germany in 1870.  Born in Philadelphia in 1868, Rieder was a book dealer and seems to have come to Los Angeles during the famed Boom of the 1880s late in that decade.  Rieder was a book dealer before he went into publishing, including souvenir booklets, photographic playing card, stereographic photographs, and a wide range of postcards.

The subjects of the postcards included scenes of agriculture, developing towns and cities, remnant adobe houses and many others, including stereotyped views of blacks, the Chinese, and Latinos.  The Homestead collection has a few dozen of Rieder’s published items, almost all of which look to be from the first decade of the twentieth century.  In 1906, he was given praise in the trade journal The American Stationer for his published views of the devastation visited upon San Francisco from the earthquake and fire of that April.

Rieder 1910 census
Michael Rieder (1868-1949) listed at the bottom of this detail of a page from the 1910 federal census as “Publisher / Specialties,” likely meaning his work producing postcards, stereoscopic photographs, pamphlets and other material.  Later, though, he worked in investments in real estate, insurance and ran a building and loan association.

Though he continued to be a publisher of “specialties” in the 1910 census, Rieder later transitioned into investments, as reflected in the 1920 census.  During the fevered development boom of the 1920s, he was an officer and director of the Home Building and Loan Association, rising to be its president by the end of the decade.

The Great Depression appears to have severely affected his fortunes, however.  He was sued for default of a rather small loan which he fought to further defeat at a state appeals court hearing and was a salesman in the Depression years.  He was listed as a real estate and insurance broker in the 1940 census and died at the end of that decade at age 81.


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